“Jack and I are going to do great things,” U.S President-elect Donald Trump said after his meeting with Alibaba CEO Jack Ma (马云). The Chinese billionaire immediately added to that: “We are going to focus on small business.”
“We think the China-U.S. relationship should be strengthened and should be more friendly.”
“It was a productive meeting,” Ma later told the press: “We talked about helping American small businesses to sell things through the Alibaba platform, to China and to Asia.” He further said: “We also think the China-U.S. relationship should be strengthened and should be more friendly.”
Ma called Trump “very smart” and “open-minded”, and indicated that doing business was the path towards stronger Sino-American relations. He also spoke about his plans to create a million jobs in the U.S. by bringing American (agricultural) sellers onto his platform.
The focus on small American business will especially be on the Midwest, with Alibaba facilitating the sales of products like garments, wine or fruits from the U.S. to (Southeast) Asia.
The meeting, that took place in the early morning of January 10 (Beijing time) in the New York Trump Tower, received much attention on Chinese social media, where state media outlets such as People’s Daily reported about the new collaboration.
“Jack Ma is one of the few capable Chinese people who can engage in public diplomacy.”
In the Chinese Financial Times, Chinas’s Jilin University Foreign Affairs Professor Sun Xingjie (孙兴杰) said that when the traditional foreign diplomacy channels between two countries are somehow strained, it is good to take a different route to kick-start public diplomacy.
“Jack Ma is one of the few capable Chinese people who can engage in public diplomacy,” according to Sun.
The Chinese public opinion towards Trump has been going up and down over the past few months, as I recently also explained on Al Jazeera (see video below).
A generally positive view on Trump when he was elected, shifted to a more negative one after the Taipei phone call and the Fox Interview, in which Trump challenged the One China Policy.
Many called Trump an “idiot” and said he had “zero understanding of how diplomacy works.”
Jack Ma, on the other hand, is the most respected entrepreneur of China. Bookstores have entire sections dedicated to the business magnate, who is not just known as the richest man of China, but also as a welldoer and an influential who keeps, in his own words, “a very good love relationship with the government” (Lee & Song 2016, 33).
“Jack Ma should become the Chinese ambassador to the United States.”
Could Sino-American relations indeed be strengthened through ‘Alibaba diplomacy’? For now, it seems that the Chinese government supports the Trump-Ma meeting.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang responded to the Trump-Ma meeting on Wednesday, saying that China-US trade relations are mutually beneficial and that the potential of successful flourishing cooperations between the two biggest economic powers in the world is “enormous.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated it strongly encourages the strengthening of Sino-American cooperations.
Some netizens wondered what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to do with Jack Ma’s Trump meeting at all, but many found the relevance of the meeting for bilateral relations indisputable: “Of course this is relevant to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs!” some responded, with others even suggesting that Jack Ma should become the Chinese ambassador to the United States.
Many commenters responded to the Trump-Ma meeting with the Chinese idiom “yī mǎ píng chuān” (一马平川), “a horse galloping straight across the flat land”, which means that everything goes smoothly and that there are no boundaries or hurdles.
But the idiom also is a word joke, as it contains the characters of the Chinese names of Trump (川) and Ma (马: literally ‘horse’), which would change the idiom’s meaning to: “Ma galloping straight across Trump”, meaning Jack Ma could knock out Trump in one hit.
“When you eat dumplings you need garlic sauce, when you deal with Trump you need Jack Ma.”
Different from last December, Weibo users hardly spoke ill of Trump now. Instead, they expressed their admiration for Ma – not just because of his successful business but also because of his English proficiency: “He should become the head of the Foreign Trade Office, he needs no translators, brings his own money, and can speak his mind without needing anyone else,” one commenter says.
Many Chinese web users seemed to take pride in Ma’s meeting with the President-elect. “Ma Yun [Jack Ma] for president!” was a much recurring phrase.
Despite the general positive mood about the Trump-Ma meeting, not all people were happy about it. Some called Ma a traitor to his country. “It’s nice that Jack Ma has said that he would create a million new jobs,” one person responded: “It is just a pity it is not in China.”
But many did see the benefit of taking the Alibaba route in creating friendlier Sino-U.S. relations: “Different situations call for different measures,” one Weibo user from Shandong stated: “When you eat dumplings you need garlic sauce, when you deal with a businessman [like Trump] you need Jack Ma.”
Trump’s pragmatism, unconventionality, and his business background were one of the reasons why many Chinese netizens took a liking to him. Many seem to think that a businessman like Trump also needs a different kind of diplomatic approach – and that Jack Ma is the right person to do it.
“Born in China but created for the world.”
While Chinese bloggers jokingly call Ma China’s “special ambassador” (特使), Jack Ma’s meeting with Trump ultimately is not a political move but a commercial one.
A closer cooperation with the United States would further strengthen the Alibaba brand, which was created in China with the idea that everyone, no matter where, could be an online seller.
Within China, this has come true with the success of e-commerce platforms like Taobao and Tmall.
But one of the Alibaba slogans states that the brand is “born in China but created for the world,” and thus Ma wants Alibaba to be a stronger international platform.
Alibaba’s promotional video below shows that the platform has boundless international ambitions, with rural families from China now being able to buy fresh fish from New Zealand through Tmall and even having the option to dispatch a New Zealand chef to come and cook it for them.
Tying more American small businesses to Alibaba would further internationalize Alibaba and open up a larger market for Chinese and Asian consumers.
In the end, this might be good for China-U.S. relations, but above all, it is good for Alibaba. When it also serves a diplomatic goal in doing so, it is just killing two birds with one stone; like getting the dumplings with the garlic sauce, and eating them together with Trump.
Lee, Suk and Bob Song. 2016. Never Give Up: Jack Ma In His Own Words. Chicago: B2 Books.
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